Photo By Dustin Long

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.’’

Here’s your primer heading into second half of NASCAR Cup playoffs

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If you thought the first five races of the NASCAR Cup playoffs were intense, you haven’t seen nothing yet.

As the 10-race playoffs move into their second half, the final five races will likely be more competitive than the first five.

That’s particularly true in Sunday’s cut-off race at Kansas, where the current field of 12 remaining playoff contenders will be cut to eight after the checkered flag falls.

And then there will be the Round of 8 cut-off race at Phoenix in four weeks that will set the four-driver field for the championship race in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Thanks to our friends at RacingInsights.com, here’s some of the top playoff insights that will help fans better understand where we are in the playoffs heading into Kansas:

  • Playoff drivers have won all five races in the 2017 playoffs.
  • The last time a driver who didn’t make it into the playoffs won a playoff race was Denny Hamlin at Homestead in 2013.
  • The last playoff race won by a playoff driver who was previously eliminated from the playoffs was Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Phoenix in 2015.
  • Tony Stewart in 2005 is the only driver to go on to win the championship without winning a race during the playoffs.
  • Four of five playoff races so far this season have been won from a qualifying position of sixth or better.
  • Brad Keselowski won at Talladega driving a Ford, ending a four-race playoff winning streak by Toyotas. Also, prior to Talladega, Toyota drivers had won all four poles and all four races in the 2017 playoffs. Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the pole at Talladega, but finished seventh.
  • Brad Keselowski won at Talladega with a last lap pass for the win, it was the eighth playoff race won with a last lap pass and the only one in the last 29 races.
  • There were 11 cautions at Talladega, the most cautions in the last 18 playoff races.
  • There were a combined 21 cautions in the last two playoff races, the same number as the previous four playoff races combined.
  • Talladega last week: 14 cars running at the finish, 26 total DNFs (including 24 DNFs due to wrecks), three red flags and only two playoff drivers finished in the top 10 – all records for a playoff race.
  • A Chevrolet driver has finished runner-up in each of this season’s first five playoff races.
  • Chase Elliott has finished runner-up three times so far in the playoffs. The record for most runner-up finishes in the playoffs in a season was four by Jeff Gordon in 2014 and Jimmie Johnson in 2006. Elliott has also finished runner-up at both 1.5-mile tracks so far, with three more 1.5-mile tracks still left in the final five races (Kansas, Texas and Homestead-Miami).
  • Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch are the only drivers still playoff-eligible that have scored stage points in every playoff race.
  • The best average finish by a driver in all 10 races of the playoffs is 4.9 by Carl Edwards in 2011. Edwards tied Tony Stewart for the championship, but Stewart won on the first tiebreaker – more wins (five to Edwards’ one).
  • Martin Truex Jr. has led the playoff standings through the first five races of the playoffs, tying Matt Kenseth in 2013 for the most races led by a driver to start the playoffs. Truex also won at Kansas in May.
  • Three drivers have won races during the playoffs in all three years of the elimination format entering 2017: Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson all three drivers have yet to win in 2017.
  • Only two of the 135 playoff races were won by drivers getting their first NASCAR Cup win: Clint Bowyer in 2007 at New Hampshire and Brian Vickers in 2006 at Talladega.
  • Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to win a race in every season of the playoffs entering 2017. Entering Kansas, Johnson remains winless in the 2017 playoffs.

Long: Lack of stage points could end Jimmie Johnson’s bid for 8th title

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Jimmie Johnson’s spotter says he’ll be “crossing my fingers” this weekend at Kansas that the mistake he made at Talladega doesn’t keep Johnson from advancing in the playoffs.

Should the seven-time series champion fail to move on to the Round of 8 — he holds the final transfer spot entering Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway — it won’t be because spotter Earl Barban told the team it could work on Johnson’s car before NASCAR had withdrawn the red flag at Talladega, incurring a penalty that ended the team’s race.

No, Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the team can look at their failure to collect as many Stage 1 points as their competitors. Even if Johnson advances, his lack of stage points could keep him from racing for a championship if he doesn’t win a race in the Round of 8.

Johnson goes to Kansas with a seven-point lead on Kyle Busch for the final transfer spot. Matt Kenseth trails Johnson by eight points.

Before the playoffs began, Johnson was asked if there would be more of a penalty for his summer slump that cost him stage points.

“I really think so,’’ he said. “We know our qualifying average doesn’t lead to a Stage 1 opportunity.’’ 

Johnson’s struggles in qualifying have put him in a mid-pack spot and made it difficult to score many points in the opening stage. His average starting spot of 17.0 this season is worst among the remaining playoff contenders

The result is that Johnson has scored 59 Stage 1 points in 31 races this season — fewest among all but one of the remaining playoff contenders. Johnson has scored only 35.8 percent of his 165 total stage points in the opening stage. To compare, Kyle Busch, who has an average starting spot of 7.1, scored 58.7 percent of his 315 total stage points in the opening stage. 

Johnson’s difficulties in the playoffs have been as pronounced.

Johnson’s average starting spot of 15.2 in the postseason is only better than Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (16.2 average starting spot in playoffs) and Jamie McMurray (18.2).

Johnson’s 27 stage points are more than only Stenhouse (14) and McMurray (13) in the playoffs.

Johnson also has scored 37 percent of his total stage points in the opening stage — the lowest percentage among the remaining title contenders in the playoffs. 

To compare with Busch, he has an average starting spot of 4.8 in the playoffs. That’s allowed Busch to score 63.5 percent of his 52 total stage points in the opening stage.

Add it together and Johnson could face quite a challenge to stay in title contention.

Having to hold off Busch won’t be easy, provided Busch doesn’t run into problems.

In four of the first five playoff races, Busch has scored five or more stage points than Johnson in the opening stage. If Busch does that Sunday, he will be in position to pass Johnson for a spot in the next round over the final 187 laps of the 267-lap event.

That’s a likely scenario. Busch has outscored Johnson 80-41 in stage points in the season’s eight races on 1.5-mile tracks.

If Busch moves into a transfer spot, Johnson likely will have to beat Ryan Blaney to have a chance to break his tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt in championships. Blaney has a two-point lead on Johnson.

Blaney has scored 108 Stage 1 points compared to Johnson’s 59 for the entire season. Blaney has outscored Johnson 196-165 in total stage points this season. In the playoffs, Blaney has a 10.2 average starting spot (compared to Johnson’s 15.2). Blaney has outscored Johnson 28-27 in total stage points in the postseason.

The challenges could be difficult for Johnson this weekend.

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NASCAR video: A.J. Allmendinger could be spoiler at Kansas

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It’s admittedly been a rough season for A.J. Allmendinger.

In the first 31 races, Allmendinger has one top-five finish and five top 10s.

He’s 26th in the NASCAR Cup point standings, which is on pace to be the worst full-time season of Allmendinger’s Cup career.

But there’s a bright spot for Allmendinger in this weekend’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

Allmendinger has recorded two top-10 finishes in the last three races at the 1.5-mile track.

And he’s ready to go for another top-10 Sunday.

“In the last few races, the track has widened out for three-wide racing,” Allmendinger said. “It’s a fun race track, run the bottom, middle or top. It’s a place we’ve had success at, we’re ready to go do it again.”

NASCAR America: Dale Jr. on last run at ‘Dega, thoughts on rising new stars (videos)

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In a way, Sunday’s Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway was another example of the changing of the guard in NASCAR.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. took his last ride around the place, starting from the pole and finishing a respectable seventh.

As a special guest on Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America on NBCSN, Junior recalled the thrill of his final Cup race at the sport’s longest racetrack, the emotion that went with it and how he felt his day went overall. Check out the video above for his thoughts.

At the same time, Earnhardt also said Sunday’s race was a good example of how some of NASCAR’s young up-and-coming stars like Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney are really starting to make their presence felt in the sport.

When Earnhardt retires at season’s end, it’ll be up to drivers like Elliott, Blaney, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Austin and Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and others to keep the sport advancing and growing.

Earnhardt also revealed on the show that he had a “passing the baton” moment at Talladega with both Elliott and Blaney.

He also noticed that in addition to the sell-out crowd cheering him on as it has for the last 18 years, a large number of fans cheered loudly and noticeably when Elliott took the lead.

Will many of Junior’s fans ultimately gravitate to start following drivers like Elliott and others as he closes in on retirement at season’s end?

Check out his thoughts in the following video, as well.