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Kurt Busch ready to reclaim NASCAR Cup championship for himself, Ford

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Just barely falling short of winning the Race Of Champions competition this past weekend in Miami has Kurt Busch pumped up to win another kind of championship.

And it’s a Monster, indeed.

Busch, who was the first driver to win the then-new Chase for the Nextel Cup format in 2004, would like nothing more than to become the first driver to win the rebranded Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.

What’s more, if Busch and his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Fusion – which will also continue to be sponsored by Monster Energy as well – has an added bit of incentive tacked on from his championship run 12 years ago.

Busch is the last Ford-powered driver to bring a NASCAR Cup championship to the blue oval company. Since Busch’s championship with Roush Fenway Racing in 2004, there have been 12 Chevrolets, one Dodge and one Toyota that have won NASCAR’s most coveted crown.

But not Ford. Busch has high hopes of changing that 0-for-14 streak.

“It is a special homecoming feeling to head back to work with Ford and to have them with our power and our bodies at Stewart-Haas Racing,” Busch said Tuesday at the NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte. “It really feels neat to come back to a place where I’ve seen the faces before and the way that the structure has been polished up on and the way that there’s more depth with Ford Performance.

“The best thing that I’ve seen already come out of things is that the engineering staff at Stewart-Haas.  It’s like they just opened up a whole new book of things to look at and to advance our program further from where we were with GM.”

Admittedly, while the entire Stewart-Haas organization is excited about its first season with all-new Ford power and bodies, there could still be a learning curve of getting used to a different manufacturer after SHR’s previous long tenure with Chevrolet.

But even without any preseason testing, Busch remains optimistic that he and his teammates can come out strong right from the start of the season.

“The teams have more depth,” he said. “There’s more simulations. It used to be the driver and the crew chief came back with a notebook. Now the notebook has been used by the lead engineers.

“Limited track time saves money, but you spend more on personnel to make the cars faster, safer, stronger. I’ve seen some of the drawings. We had to change a few of our suspension settings. There might be a few bugs here or there, but I’m not too worried about it.”

Competing in this past weekend’s Race Of Champions in Miami added yet another excerpt to Busch’s vast racing resume, including NASCAR to drag racing, midget cars to Legends cars and bandolero’s, and even drove in the Indianapolis 500.

But the ROC was definitely an adventure.

“The Race of Champions is very unique and it’s a lot of fun,” Busch said. “It’s a chaotic, frat house feel and to race against the Europeans, the South Americans, it truly was a unique challenge and all the different vehicles that the Race of Champions puts you in and how it’s structured and how it all works, but it’s the fun, it’s the other side of it too.

“After my first race Sunday, I got beat by Hinchcliffe (IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe) by only a fraction of a second and I was feeling a little down.

“And I said, ‘I think I’ve got the wrong mentality. I just need to go like this is a green-white-checker every time I go out there. Just grab gears, hard on the brake, hard on the gas, just attack the track and go for it.’

“And then I started winning. I was able to get on the other side of the second bracket that I needed to get in and then Kyle was winning as well.  He was beating guys like Jenson Button and Felipe Massa, and the next thing you know we advanced as the NASCAR group as brothers and represented the USA in the finals against (Sebastian) Vettel. That was an incredible feeling. I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

Busch also regaled the media with the funniest part of this past weekend’s ROC.

“For some reason everybody was forgetting what gear to put their car in when they were leaving the staging area on Sunday,” he said. “Scott Speed literally drove through (Helio) Castroneves in the staging area and wrecked two cars.

“My little brother (Kyle Busch) thought he was in first gear, but he was in fast reverse and he backed into another car. I was like, ‘Guys, why are we all so nervous as the American team?’”

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Regan Smith will drive No. 43 in Coke 600 for injured Aric Almirola

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Regan Smith will once again drive the No. 43 Ford in place of the injured Aric Almirola this weekend in the Coca-Cola 600.

Smith’s role as a substitute driver for Richard Petty Motorsports continues after he stepped in for Almirola last weekend in the Monster Energy Open. Smith finished fourth in the final stage of the race.

Almirola is expected to miss eight to 12 weeks as he recovers from a T5 compression fracture in his back. Almirola suffered the injury at Kansas Speedway in a major three-car crash.

MORE: Aric Almirola recounts Kansas crash.

Smith will be making his first start in a Cup points race this year. He currently drives for Ricky Benton Racing in the Camping World Truck Series.

Smith has 11 Cup starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway with a best finish of eighth in the 2011 Coke 600.

“To me, there are a lot of cool things about helping out again this weekend,” Smith said in a press release. “Being able to represent the Air Force on Memorial Day weekend and show appreciation to those who make the ultimate sacrifice is very special to me. I’m honored to race with Senior Airmen Mark Forester on the car and pay tribute to his sacrifice. As I said many times last weekend, to get to drive ‘The King’s’ 43 car means so much to me. The Coca-Cola 600 is one of my favorite races of the year, and Sunday is the coolest motorsports day. It will be a lot more fun being a part of such an iconic day than just being a spectator for all of the races.”

 

NASCAR America live at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN: 2018 Hall of Fame class named

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs for 90 minutes on NBCSN from 5:30 p.m. ET to 7 p.m. ET.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Parker Kligerman in Stamford, Connecticut while Krista Voda anchors coverage from the NASCAR Hall of Fame for today’s naming of the Hall’s 2018 induction class. Voda will be joined by Jeff Burton and Nate Ryan.

On today’s show:

  • Today we are live from the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, where we’ll reveal the 2018 NASCAR Hall of Fame Class as well as the recipient of the Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR. Plus, we’ll hear from the members of the newly elected class while our panel of experts weigh-in with their reactions.
  • Marty Snider will also be at the Hall for several interviews.

Just a reminder, on Friday we’ll preview the biggest day in motorsports with reports from Monaco, Indianapolis, and of course, Charlotte. It’s the NASCAR America Motorsports Special at 3:30 ET on NBCSN.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you also can watch it via the online stream at http://nascarstream.nbcsports.com

If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5:30 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Kevin Harvick: Current state of Truck Series schedule ‘makes me mad’

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Not long after NASCAR unveiled the 2018 schedules for its three national series, Kevin Harvick went on a rant about the current state of the Camping World Truck Series schedule, saying “it makes me mad.”

“The Truck schedule is racing at a ton of the wrong race tracks,” Harvick said Tuesday on his weekly SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hour. “They should be back at Louisville (Motor Speedway), they should be back at some of these grassroots race tracks. The Truck Series should be helping us build our grassroots program, from Late Models on up, by having a Truck race there.”

With NASCAR trying to find ways to win the hearts and minds of new fans, Harvick believes the Truck Series, which debuted in 1995, is an unused tool for strengthening the sport’s fan base.

“In order to help our sport to produce from the bottom up, we have to help figure out how to get the grassroots program where they need to be and that’s what we need to be using the Truck Series for,” said Harvick, a 14-time Truck winner and former Truck team owner. “Go to these grassroots race tracks and guess what? That’s where the Trucks need to be racing because they’re going to put 10 to 15,000 people in the grandstands every week to watch these races because they’re unique events.”

“They don’t want to show up on a Friday at Dover (International Speedway) and watch these trucks drive around the race track because they’re going to show up on Sunday to watch the Cup cars. Take the trucks somewhere where everybody wants to see them, because there’s short tracks across the country that want to see them.

“Sorry, I’m on a rant. It make me mad.”

Harvick’s thoughts about reaching fans are in addition to those made by Kyle Larson earlier this year about how NASCAR should encourage its stars to race at short tracks in smaller series.

Harvick is doing a variation of this later this season. He will competes in the K&N Pro Series West race at Sonoma Raceway the weekend of the Cup Series race on the road course.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver broke into NASCAR via the Truck Series in the first year of its existence. He made his debut in 1995 at Mesa Marin Raceway in his hometown of Bakersfield, California.

Of the 18 tracks the series competed on in 1995, it still races at only three – Martinsville, Phoenix Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway.

“The Trucks should be opening up in January like they used to at Tuscon Raceway Park or the Copperworld Classic when it was at Phoenix,” Harvick said. “Let the Truck Series start our season in January so they can have exposure on TV by themselves. If the Cup guys want to go out there and race, that’s fine. Let them go race. Because that’s going to help put fans in the grandstands.

“Myself and Greg Biffle and Ron Hornaday and Mike Skinner, guess what? We’d never make to it to Cup racing, Truck racing or anything else that we do because we wouldn’t have been on TV if they didn’t have ‘Winter Heat’ and all these different series. In order to produce young stars and expose them to the public you have to start them from the grassroots level up.

“You can’t keep lollygagging along with the Truck Series at these race tracks and expect people to show up.”

Harvick cited the lack of SAFER barrier at short tracks as an excuse given for why the Truck Series doesn’t race at more short tracks.

“Let’s figure out a way to help these tracks get soft walls if that’s what it takes for them to get a Truck race,” Harvick said.

Next year, the Truck Series will have 23 races beginning on Feb. 16 at Daytona International Speedway and ending on Nov. 16 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The biggest change to the schedule is the Truck Series loses it standalone race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in September. Instead, the Truck Series will visit the track with the Cup and Xfinity Series twice on March 2 and Sept. 19.

The March 2 race in Las Vegas gives the Truck series three straight races to begin the season. For the last three seasons, the series competed at Daytona and Atlanta before going quiet until late March at Martinsville Speedway and then taking another month off until an early May race at Kansas Speedway.

From 2012-14, the series held no races between Daytona and Martinsville. Atlanta was added the week following Daytona in 2015.

The Truck Series’ Dover race moves from early June to May 4 next year, which shortens the break following the Martinsville race. The series will not be returning to New Hampshire Motor Speedway as the track loses one of its NASCAR weekends.

The Truck Series will now only have four standalone events in 2018: Texas Motor Speedway (June 8), Gateway Motorsports Park (June 23), Eldora Speedway (July 18) and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (August 26).

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Indy President: Indianapolis and NASCAR are ‘about the oval’

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INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis Motor Speedway President J. Douglas Boles confirmed to NBC Sports that discussions were had about shifting the Brickyard 400 to the road course before the decision was made to keep the NASCAR Cup Series on the 2.5-mile oval

The track’s NASCAR weekend shifts from late July to Sept. 9 next year. The track will host the final Cup race before the playoffs begin.

Boles said Wednesday that the road course was considered an option but rejected for multiple reasons.

“As fans know and as we know and as NASCAR knows, the Brickyard 400 over the last several years has struggled,” Boles told NBC Sports. “We believe to continue to make it viable and frankly to grow it, we had to look at everything.

“We actually had a conversation about the road course in February in Daytona. Mark (Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co., INDYCAR and IMS parent company) and I met with the folks in NASCAR in New York City. We talked it through.

“Ultimately, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is about the oval and NASCAR is about the oval. What makes this race special for the drivers is they get to drive on a track that Ray Harroun ran on, Wilbur Shaw won on, and you can recall the names that meant something to this sport.

“We felt committed to making the oval work.”

It was the heat, Boles said, that was the primary factor for the move to the fall. Boles noted the customer feedback from annual surveys and said that more than the racing product on track, heat was an overriding complaint.

“We survey our fans after every year,” Boles said. “The one thing we hear more than anything, the biggest complaint about the Indy 500 is the heat in the middle of the summer and you can’t shade this place. You can’t add more shade. The heat is the number one factor. We would make a move to move it out of the heat.

“Now we’ve moved it to an event where they will crown their regular season champion and they will set their 16 drivers for the playoffs. For us, that is another talking point.

“This addresses the number one concern that our customer has. The second or third, depending on the year, is that the race is just a race and doesn’t have real meaning to the rest of the season, so now we’ve also addressed that concern as well.”

One concern that arises from a September date is the potential of going head-to-head with the Indianapolis Colts. The NFL traditionally releases its schedule in April, so NASCAR will know whether the Colts are in town on Sunday, Sept. 9 well in advance.

Boles and IMS are already working toward an amenable solution.

“We completely understand it’s NFL season, and we’re in a city where the Colts are,” he said. “So we have begun those conversations, even ahead of announcing this with the folks at the Colts, so we can do the best we can to limit the weekends we go head to head with the Colts in this market.”