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Ryan: Why Goodyear hasn’t signed an extension . . . and more musings from Atlanta

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HAMPTON, Ga. – As the exclusive tire supplier of NASCAR for more than two decades, Goodyear always is in the news (or crosshairs) for its ubiquitous presence.

When tires mysteriously deflate (or don’t), Goodyear gets blamed.

When a track repaves its asphalt, Goodyear faces heat to maintain quality racing.

When NASCAR adjusts its rules, Goodyear feels the pressure to accommodate durability and handling.

What would happen, though, if there were no Goodyear to kick around anymore?

Actually, that remains a possible scenario for next season.

A month into the final season of their current contract, Goodyear and NASCAR finally have started negotiations on an extension – much later than the typical timeframe.

Consider its five-year deal that expires this season was signed in October 2011 – more than 15 months ahead of the end of its previous contract.

In an interview with ESPN.com and NBC Sports, Goodyear worldwide director of racing Stu Grant said the company had its first major negotiations meeting with NASCAR in mid-February.

With the past year being devoted to finding a Cup Series title sponsor, Goodyear understandably was less of a priority.

“The NASCAR guys had a lot on their plate,” Grant said. “We had early discussions with NASCAR and agreed to put our extension on the back burner, but now we’re having discussions in earnest. We’re committed to NASCAR. NASCAR is committed to us. Our negotiations are going well.

“I think we’re in good shape.”

Still, it is clear that Goodyear now has some leverage. If the negotiations were to hit a sticking point, NASCAR would seem to lack options. Finding a replacement would be difficult. Even if it had a suitor, it would be a very tall order with less than a year of prep time to construct and deliver tens of thousands of tires for the 2018 season.

So Goodyear, which spends much of its time deflecting criticism about its product, would seem to be in the catbird seat to call more of the shots for this contract. That could be significant given that many improvements made to the cars over the past decade adversely have affected the tires.

But there don’t seem to be any stumbling blocks so far. Grant expects a new deal to be finalized by the season’s midpoint.

“NASCAR was in for our first face to face half-day meeting,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of earlier discussions, but that was the first big dialogue we’ve had that was all good. So we’ve kind of really kicked off that process, and having been through a few of these in the past, once you agree on the deal points, then you get the fine points and so on.”

Other observations from Atlanta:

–Runner-up Kyle Larson has been passed for the lead with fewer than 10 laps remaining in the past three Cup races.

Miami (losing first because of an all-time move on the final restart by perhaps NASCAR’s all-time driver) was forgivable. So was Daytona (running out of fuel on the final lap).

But Atlanta might be harder to reconcile for car owner Chip “I Like Winners” Ganassi.

The explanation provided by Larson for why he chose the slower high lane to fend off winner Brad Keselowski ostensibly makes sense. Keselowski previously had shown speed in the high lane, and Larson is among the best in running against the wall.

But you can make a case that the No. 42 Chevrolet driver overthought the move. The lower lane seemed faster on the 1.54-mile oval throughout the weekend. Why not force Keselowski to beat you on the outside and hope for the best?

And when Keselowski swings high, why not throw a block as Denny Hamlin did to Keselowski on the last lap of The Clash? OK, maybe the outcome is the same, and neither car wins. So what? It’s for the win.

Larson is an immensely talented driver whose ethics have been highly praised by his peers (see: last year’s Dover finish when he also chose discretion over playing rough). That praise can be damning, though.

He should have more than one victory on NASCAR’s premier circuit. It might take an unpopular — and unnatural — change in his approach to get the next win.

–The sample size is only two races, but it should be at least noted that Ford is undefeated since adding powerhouse Stewart-Haas Racing (and that the Blue Oval led all but 12 of 325 laps Sunday between Keselowski and Kevin Harvick).

The uptick in performance for the Fusion brigade isn’t unexpected, but there’s one element that is. Team Penske, which typically is notorious for walling off other teams even when under the same manufacturer umbrella, seems to be embracing a greater spirit of camaraderie with SHR.

Team owner Roger Penske (who made “the unfair advantage” a thing in auto racing) even alluded to helping Stewart-Haas with its chassis over the offseason.

“Obviously (we) worked with Roush last year, they weren’t quite as competitive as maybe we were, but we knew coming in with Stewart‑Haas that they were going to be guys that could set a bar for us,” Penske said. “In fact, we built some chassis for them before Daytona, some center sections, and we had our cars in the wind tunnel and compared them.  So we know what they have and they know what we have.

“I felt that the camaraderie at Daytona was something we haven’t had for a number of years because we pretty much played by ourselves, and I think that that’s made us much stronger. But from a comparison standpoint, I think that we need that because if they’re better than we are, we’ve got to figure out why and vice versa, and we’ll shoot it out on the track there in the last lap or the last 10 laps.”

Toyota Racing Development made a shrewd move last year in aligning Furniture Row to the powerful Joe Gibbs Racing stable and effectively creating a six-car team. It can’t be that way with Stewart-Haas and Penske, but Ford definitely will get more championship contenders out of this arrangement. If Penske plays nice in a way it didn’t with many others in the past, it increases the title odds for Ford’s expanded field.

–Roughly nine hours before he would be celebrating his first win at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Keselowski was carrying his daughter, Scarlett, around the garage, giving the nearly 2-year-old a tour of his No. 2 team. After the win, he took a page from the Steph Curry playbook and briefly brought her on stage for the postrace news conference.

Keselowski delivered a typically thoughtful answer when asked about it:

I’m really lucky to be a race car driver, but it’s challenging to balance your work life and your professional life.  I’m no different than most everyone else.  I want to have a family and I want to do all the cool things and see all the cool things you get to see when you have kids and a wife and all that, but I also want to win. That means I have to be the best professional possible, and I have to put in hours that aren’t always going to be fun, right.  So part of that and trying to maximize my work‑life balance means trying to find the appropriate times and places to blend the two, and that was my opportunity, and I’m going to always look for those opportunities with my wife and daughter and family in general.

“It’s part of the challenge of doing what we do, but I’m still really lucky to live this life and to have an opportunity to race for a great team and travel around the country and see all kinds of cool things and meet all kinds of cool people and have fans and all that, but I feel lucky that I have a team that’s kind of letting me have some slack with all those things and try to find that right balance because I’ll never forget Roger’s son Greg told me, this is one of the first questions he asked me.  He said to me one day, he said, ‘How do you balance your work life and your home life?’

“For a lot of years, I had a terrible work‑to‑life balance with respect to just being all work. … I would say that my time with my family is my time to sharpen the axe, and believe me, when Scarlett wakes up at 7 a.m. and I’m still really tired, I really want to go to work.  I get some good reminders there how fun work is. But in general, I just enjoy the time, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, and I feel like I’ve got the best balance I’ve ever had, and I feel very fortunate.

–It’s been a less than auspicious debut for the ballyhooed 2018 Camry that is running as a 2017 race car. Though Matt Kenseth (third) salvaged a decent day for JGR, Kyle Busch’s struggles were perplexing.

Las Vegas isn’t make or break yet, but TRD and Gibbs will want to make a statement about their new model on a 1.5-mile track.

–Regardless of where you come down on the DeLana vs. Dillon debate, there is no question that it has elements of the type of rivalries that have built NASCAR. There’s so much backstory over the past five years here, it’s hard to pick a spot to begin explaining Sunday night’s flare-up.

While feuding isn’t fun for drivers (or their significant others/wives), it’s compelling to follow.

–Good nugget from NBCSN analyst/NBC Sports.com columnist/occasional ace driver Parker Kligerman on NBCSN’s Monday Morning Donuts podcast about why two Richard Childress Racing cars had battery problems.

Kligerman noted that teams are employing batteries so powerful, there might not be a need for an alternator, which can add a few horsepower. Kligerman said many drivers toggle their alternator off for qualifying laps or on restarts for extra oomph. There could be some kinks to work out if teams are trying to employ that strategy for a 500-mile race.

–Let’s not forget how Dale Earnhardt Jr. feels about splitters, both on his podcast and on Twitter. At this rate, #TeamValence could be trending nationally during a Cup race this season and continue to build the momentum for eliminating the front-end part. Until then …

Darlington celebrates NASCAR’s 70th birthday by revealing 4th throwback weekend details

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Darlington Raceway on Thursday celebrated the 70th birthday of NASCAR in a big way, announcing details for the fourth annual NASCAR throwback weekend.

The track revealed the 2018 edition of the throwback weekend will celebrate “Seven Decades of NASCAR,” to be held Aug. 31-Sept. 2 at the legendary 1.366-mile track.

The weekend will include the Cup Series’ Bojangles’ Southern 500 and the Xfinity Series’ Sports Clips Haircuts VFW 200.

NASCAR held its first of several organizational meetings on Dec. 14, 1947, at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida. That ultimately led to the official formation of NASCAR on Feb. 21, 1948.

The throwback weekend will honor and feature highlights of some of the biggest moments in the sport’s history over its first 70 years.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for Darlington Raceway and the NASCAR industry to celebrate the sport over a seven decade period during our 2018 throwback weekend,” Darlington Raceway President Kerry Tharp said in a media release.

“We have been era specific the past three years,” Tharp added, “so we felt it was important to recognize the 70th anniversary of NASCAR with our ‘Seven Decades of NASCAR’ celebration next season and give the teams, sanctioning body and others a wider brush to paint a picture capturing memorable moments we might not have celebrated in year’s past.”

Memorable moments to be celebrated include several that took place at Darlington itself, including Ned Jarrett’s record-setting 14-lap victory in the 1965 Southern 500, Ricky Craven’s record-setting photo finish win over Kurt Busch in 2003, and Jimmie Johnson’s 2012 Southern 500 win, which gave team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career victory, among others.

Cup winners of the first three throwback weekends have been Carl Edwards (2015), Martin Truex Jr. (2016) and Denny Hamlin (2017).

As has been the case for the first three throwback weekends, the track will once again issue commemorative tickets for the Southern 500.

“We have produced commemorative tickets for our fans every year of the throwback program, which is an important part of our platform,” Tharp said. “We appreciate how much the fans have supported Darlington Raceway and want them to walk away from our weekend with a special keepsake that recognizes our rich history and honors the stars of our sport.”

Front Row Motorsports adds Michael McDowell, expands technical alliance with Roush Fenway

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Front Row Motorsports will field entries for David Ragan and Michael McDowell in 2018 while expanding its technical alliance with Roush Fenway Racing, the team announced Thursday.

McDowell joins the Bob Jenkins-owned team after four years of driving the No. 95 Chevrolet for Leavine Family Racing before being replaced by Kasey Kahne.

The native of Phoenix, Arizona, McDowell replaces Landon Cassill as Ragan’s teammate.

McDowell, 32, has 249 Cup starts since 2008, but only two full-time seasons under his belt. He made one start for Front Row at Watkins Glen in 2013.

“Since I first drove for Bob at Watkins Glen, we’ve kept in touch and have felt like there might be an opportunity to work together again, and the timing worked out perfectly,” McDowell said in a press release. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a teammate, so I’m really looking forward to working with David, whom I’ve become pretty good friends with over the years. As a team now, we go into the season knowing we have five or six races that put us in position to get a win and earn a spot in the playoffs.”

Ragan returns to Front Row for his fifth season. Ragan earned the organization its first Cup victory in 2013 at Talladega. Ragan has two wins, 15 top fives and 39 top-10 finishes in his Cup career.

“Bob Jenkins and I have developed a good relationship over the years, both professionally and personally,” Ragan said in a press release. “I believe in this team and am proud to have been part of its growth and its successes. I’m excited that Bob and Ford have agreed to take the program to the next level, and I’m happy I’ll be here to help the team continue to grow.”

Crew chief assignments have not been finalized. FRM will announce sponsor partners and driver car numbers at a later date.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ‘Last Ride’ diecast is Lionel Racing’s bestselling ever

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has set a new benchmark for Lionel Racing’s most purchased diecast in its 25-year history.

Lionel Racing, NASCAR’s official diecast producer, has announced that the diecast of Earnhardt’s “Last Ride” No. 88 Chevrolet in the Cup season finale last month is now its bestselling diecast in company history.

The “Last Ride” car is based on the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet that Earnhardt drove in his rookie Cup season in 2000.

The previous bestseller was another Earnhardt diecast, for his 2014 Daytona 500 win.

Lionel Racing says that QVC’s “For Race Fans Only” show that featured Earnhardt and unveiled the car helped contribute to sales. But even without QVC, sales of the “Last Ride” diecast outpaced the 2014 Daytona 500 diecast by more than 10,000 units.

“The demand for this car has been simply astounding,” Lionel Racing President Howard Hitchcock said on the company’s website. “The fan response to this diecast is a true measure of how much Earnhardt has meant to both casual NASCAR fans and serious diecast collectors.”

Lionel Racing has also revealed the top-10 selling diecasts for the year, which you can find below. Earnhardt has six cars on the list. Chase Elliott has two and Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney each have one.

Casey Mears likely to split 2018 between NASCAR, Global Rallycross and Stadium Super Trucks

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Casey Mears still plans to compete part-time in NASCAR in 2018, but he’s also looking to expand his racing horizons.

The veteran NASCAR driver told The Checkered Flag recently that he also expects to race in the Red Bull Global Rallycross series, as well as Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks series.

“Right now I’m talking to a few NASCAR programs to do maybe limited stuff,” Mears told The Checkered Flag. “I don’t have anything that would be a full-time ride in a NASCAR series.

“I’ve been speaking with Robby Gordon in the Stadium Super Truck program. I think that’s a really cool up-and-coming-series and I’d definitely like to be involved with the GRC. It looks like a lot of fun.

“I think there’s enough difference between all those that it could leave room for doing a bit of both so we’ll see how it works out.”

Mears did not race in the Cup Series in 2017, having lost his ride at the end of 2016 to Ty Dillon in the No. 13 Geico Chevy. He has amassed 488 starts and one win (2007 Coca-Cola 600) in his Cup career, along with 13 top fives and 51 top 10s.

However, he did compete on a part-time basis in 2017 in the Xfinity Series, making 14 starts, with season-best finishes of ninth place at both Richmond and Road America. He also has 107 Xfinity starts with one win, 16 top fives and 34 top 10s.