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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.’’

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman share thoughts on possible restrictor plates in Brickyard 400

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The Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this July will work as a testing ground for the future use of restrictor plates at the historic 2.5-mile track.

NASCAR announced earlier this week the July 22 race would be raced under the influence of the plates that have previously only been used at Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and one Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000.

Depending on the effectiveness of the plates on the level of competition, they could be used in future Cup Series races at the track.

On Friday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he was “up for whatever” in hopes of improving the racing at a track that seen drastic declines in attendance in the last decade.

“That race is really suffering as far as the show and how entertaining I think it is to watch,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t really know what the answer is to make it more exciting, but I think this is a great opportunity to find out if this is the direction to go.  I am all for it. And I like the idea of trying it in the Xfinity Series or the (Camping World) Truck Series or what have you whatever track it is at to try it in that feeder series.  That is an opportunity to see if we can get it right without ruining anything for the Cup guys.”

NASCAR has been visiting IMS since 1994 and will return for the 24th Brickyard 400 weekend this summer. But the competition level in the race has paled in comparison to what’s usually seen two months earlier in IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500.

“I think NASCAR watches the Indy 500 and they see those guys drafting and passing and they are competitive,” Earnhardt said. “They have to try to put on that type of show if not better at that race track.  It is not good in conversation to have the IndyCar race be more exciting to watch than the NASCAR race there.  That is just business.  I think it’s great for them to be aggressive.”

Earnhardt referenced the big swing NASCAR took in the Brickyard 400 two years ago when Cup cars had an aero package that included nine-inch spoilers, an attempt at creating pack racing. The result was disappointing and widely panned.

NASCAR held a three-car test at IMS last October to try out eight different configurations with restrictor plates that included various splitter heights and gear ratios. The setup that will be used will also include NASCAR’s first ever use of “aero ducts.”

Xfinity teams will also use the 2016 specs for splitters and spoilers.

When it comes to the restrictor plates, 2013 Brickyard 400 winner Ryan Newman said his view of restrictor plates is they are used where there is a need for “a balance there on speed and safety.

“I don’t know what their sim results are or what their testing has been to validate what needs to be done, but I believe it’s all based off of safety,” Newman said of the decision to use restrictor plates. “Indianapolis is unique in the fact that the corners really are kind of 90 degrees. You never really hit at 90 degrees, but you’re hitting more so at a sharper angle than you are at a place like Fontana or Michigan or even at 1.5-mile race tracks. … But given the driver’s throttle response and acceleration and the ability to pass people is equally important. And we’ve seen some racing that gets pretty spread out at Indianapolis. I don’t know if a restrictor plate would make that the same or worse; or even better for that matter. To me, I think the restrictor plate, or at least the term restrictor plate, is usually more about safety and top speeds than it is anything else.”

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Starting grid for the NASCAR Cup Series’ Auto Club 400

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With the second pole of his NASCAR Cup Series career, Kyle Larson will lead the field to green Sunday in the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.

Joining Larson the front row is Denny Hamlin.

Filling out the top five is Brad Keselowski, Martin Treux Jr. and Ryan Newman.

Click here for the starting grid.

Kyle Larson wins pole for Auto Club 400, second Cup pole of career

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Kyle Larson ended a three-year drought by winning the pole for the NASCAR Cup Series’ Auto Club 400.

Larson won his second Cup Series pole with a speed of 187.047 mph around Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. His first pole came in the August 2013 race at Pocono Raceway.

The pole continues Larson’s impressive start to 2017. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver leads the point standings after earning three consecutive second-place finishes.

“I felt like messed up there in Turn 1 and 2 and I got a little bit loose off the wall on the entry and it got me to split the seam in (Turn) 1 and 2,” Larson told Fox Sports. “I was able to commit to (being) wide open off (Turn) 1 and 2. I hadn’t ran up high in (Turn) 3 and 4 at all in practice or qualifying here. Didn’t really know what I would have out there but ran a good ways and it stuck. … Our Target team has been really amazing to start the season and to get a pole is great. … Got a little team dinner tonight, so this will be a good thing to celebrate.”

Larson’s run knocked Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin from the top spot. As Larson drove down pit road, a Fox Sports camera caught Hamlin playfully showing his dissatisfaction by emptying a cup of ice in the direction of the No. 42.

“This is No. 1 on my list of track I want to win,” Hamlin told Fox Sports. “It’s bitten me mentally and physically … definitely one I want to check off.”

Filling out the top five is Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr and Ryan Newman.

Daniel Suarez qualified 10th for his best career Cup start.

No Hendrick Motorsports entries will start in the top 10. Kasey Kahne was the top qualifier in 12th, followed by Chase Elliott.

Five cars did not make qualifying attempts, with one of them being by choice. Jimmie Johnson’s team elected not to make an attempt following his accident in practice. He will start 37th.

Joining Johnson at the back of the field will be Joey Logano, Trevor Bayne, Matt DiBenedetto and Gray Gaulding. All of their cars did not make it through inspection in time to qualifying.

Click here for qualifying results.

Jimmie Johnson’s team elects not to make qualifying run after accident in practice

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Following Jimmie Johnson’s accident in practice early Friday, Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team chose not to qualify with a backup car at Auto Club Speedway.

Johnson, a six-time winner at Auto Club Speedway, will start 37th in Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

Four other cars, including those of Joey Logano and Trevor Bayne, will start in the back after they did not make qualifying attempts. Their cars failed to get through inspection in time. Rookie Gray Gaulding and Matt DiBenedetto also did not qualify because their cars failed to get through inspection.

Johnson explained his team’s decision.

“We had a tough practice session and mid-pack was probably going to be our goal anyway,” he said. “So, to take our lumps here, at a track that’s really wide with a lot of lanes, a long race; we’ll just take our lumps and get the car right where we can take advantage of the precious minutes that we have in Saturday’s practice session and go from there. Pit road is going to be a problem. We’re not going to have a great pick there. We’re definitely not in a position we want to be in, so we’d rather take the time now and make sure we get everything right and get this car right; and also kind of control our risk factor.”

With ACS being such a wide race track with plenty of passing opportunities, Johnson is not in as bad a position to start Sunday’s race as he would be at more narrow track.

Crew chief Chad Knaus told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Claire B. Lang he wasn’t comfortable forcing Johnson to “hustle” to qualify a car he hadn’t practiced in.