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Ryan: NASCAR will use restrictor plates at Indianapolis . . . are Michigan and Pocono next?

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NASCAR’s latest track makeover was on display last weekend at Phoenix Raceway, which was under construction during a $178-million renovation that will completed by November 2018.

But the series-wide overhauls aren’t stopping there, and they aren’t limited to facility facelifts, either.

NBC Sports has confirmed that NASCAR will use restrictor plates for the Xfinity race July 22 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The decision, which initially was reported by freelance journalist Michael Knight on Twitter last weekend, will take effect after NASCAR was pleased by the results of a successful Xfinity test with plates last year at the 2.5-mile track.

A NASCAR official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss publicly, said if the Xfinity race goes well, then restrictor plates would be used for the 2018 Brickyard 400 in the Cup Series.

NASCAR also is considering using the same plate-style rules package for Indianapolis, Pocono Raceway and Michigan International Speedway.

Far less likely in the short term is the use of the IMS road course, which the Sports Business Journal reported last week was under consideration for usage in Cup. An IMS spokesman declined comment on the report.

Though discussions have been confirmed by NASCAR, it’s unlikely that it would be used unless as a last resort (and it definitely wouldn’t happen this season). The Indianapolis Star reported last week there is no NASCAR test scheduled for the road course, which plays host to IndyCar and was the site of Formula One races from 2000-2007.

From this corner, there are several reasons why attempting to move the premier series to Indy’s twisting circuit would be a massive mistake:

–The optics of running a road course at the world’s most fabled racetrack are brutal. It would seem extremely bush league to move NASCAR from the storied four-turn layout and strengthen the perception that stock cars are just another support series for the Indianapolis 500.

–While NASCAR needs more road courses (moving to Charlotte Motor Speedway’s “roval” next year is smart), it’s uncertain if IMS would be a good fit (F1 drivers didn’t like it).

–If NASCAR and IMS decide that the flat rectangle isn’t suitable for stock cars, then the difficult call should be made to separate after the 5-year sanctioning agreement ends in 2020.

Take the date to a place that will pack its grandstands for Cup – Iowa Speedway and Eldora Speedway are two prime candidates. Stock cars always were ill-suited for Indianapolis, but it didn’t make a difference in the first 14 years that NASCAR raced the Brickyard because of its prestige.

Indy now is mired in a 10-year trend of declining crowds that can be traced directly to the tire debacle in the 2008 Brickyard. A similar controversy in 2005 led to F1’s permanent departure from the facility. NASCAR and IMS might face the same if plates can’t save the day.

A few other leftovers from the past week:

–The loss of a track like Indy would be a PR blemish for NASCAR, but there were signs this past week that stock-car racing can move the needle with mainstream media and in popular culture.

Along with replays of the Kyle BuschJoey Logano confrontation on countless national TV shows, there was a nice hit with the “edgy” Barstool Sports’ affiliation with Chris Buescher at Las Vegas.

And the visit to Hendrick Motorsports and the Charlotte Motor Speedway by Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg was simply a PR coup that couldn’t be reproduced with any sport ad buy.

Zuckerberg, whose net worth has been estimated by Forbes at more than $50 billion, has explored NASCAR sponsorships with Cup teams before, and his obvious zeal about taking a thrill ride with Dale Earnhardt Jr. was validating.

As Jeff Burton said on NASCAR America last Thursday, Zuckerberg “got to drive with a real race car driver at 180, 190 mph. Whenever I’ve had the chance to do that, and I’ve driven some of the best professional athletes in the world, they have left with a completely different appreciation for what this sport is all about.

“You can play basketball, football and baseball in P.E. You don’t drive a race car in P.E. You don’t have an appreciation for it. (For Zuckerberg) to experience that is great for the sport.”

The point is well-taken. LeBron James visited Bristol Motor Speedway in August 2005 as part of a Powerade sponsorship with Bobby Labonte, but he shot hoops on the frontstretch and toured the garage without taking a ride (though filmmaker Quentin Tarantino got an opportunity the same day). Next time, NASCAR shouldn’t miss such a chance.

–Speaking of LeBron, it’s easy to juxtapose the NBA’s current controversy over championship-caliber teams choosing to rest their stars with NASCAR’s move toward exactly the opposite.

Stage racing added a new layer at Phoenix Raceway, particularly at the close of the first segment when Joey Logano had to fend off Kyle Larson.

The point of stages are to avoid situations similar to the NBA where stars routinely take nights off to rest for the playoffs. It can’t happen in NASCAR anymore if a driver and team want to avoid the risk of leaving points on the table to reach the championship round.

You can make an argument that the NASCAR regular season remains too long — just like the NBA. But at least NASCAR has ensured the first 26 races are more meaningful than ever.

–Phoenix was another strong showing for Larson, who has three straight runner-up finishes and four in the past five races. But as noted here two weeks ago, it also was another reminder that the Chip Ganassi Racing driver needs to learn to close out victories in NASCAR.

Larson should have outdueled Ryan Newman for the victory at Phoenix, but he allowed his No. 42 Chevrolet (which had two fresh tires) to be bumped by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (no tires) on the restart.

Larson consequently lost momentum and couldn’t mount a charge on Newman, who didn’t hesitate to clobber Larson on the final lap of the November 2014 races at the 1-mile oval to advance to the title round.

“Hindsight is always 20/20,” he said. “But I should have went a lane up in (turns) 1 and 2. I should have known to just stay close to Newman.  That’s what I wish I would have done.

“But, yeah, it’s weird running all these seconds.  It took me, like, three years to finish second in sprint cars.  Now I finish second like every week.  A little weird, but maybe we’ll turn them into wins soon.”

The bottom line is Larson needs more of a killer instinct to improve on his career victory total (one). He figured it out in the short feature races of sprint cars, but a three-hour race takes a different skillset.

In the past five months, Miami, Atlanta and Phoenix have proved he hasn’t perfected his yet.

90-year-old Hershel McGriff to compete in K&N Pro Series West race in Tucson

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Hershel McGriff has won 37 times in the K&N Pro Series West, and he’s getting a shot at one more win at the age of 90.

McGriff will drive for Bill McAnally Racing in the May 5 race at Tucson Speedway.

His first start in the series came in 1954 when he was 26. That year he also won his only four Cup races in 87 career starts.

McGriff will drive the No. 04 South Point Hotel & Casino Toyota Camry.

“Who would turn down a free ride in a K&N car built by Bill McAnally Racing?” McGriff said in a press release.

“Bill said to pick out a track anywhere on the West Coast that has a K&N race and that’s where we’ll race. Tucson’s my home. So, we decided on Tucson, although I haven’t run here that much. It’s going to be fun. I hope I do well, for his sake. I think I can.”

McGriff, born in 1927 when Calvin Coolidge was President of the United States, was chosen as one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers in 1998. He holds the mark as the oldest winner in the K&N West series. His last victory came in 1989 at 61.

A NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee, McGriff’s first NASCAR start came in the first Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in 1950. He drove his car cross-country from his home in Portland, Oregon, finished ninth, and drove back to Portland.

McGriff last competed full-time in the K&N West series in 2001 when he drove for McAnally.

“I was extremely privileged to be associated with one of the 50 greatest drivers in NASCAR when Hershel drove for us in 2001,” McAnally said in a press release. “It’s great to have him back, as he returns to the series for this event.

May 5 will be a busy night at the track for the McGriff family. His granddaughter, Mariah McGriff, will compete in a Super Late Model division race and Hershel McGriff Jr. will compete in an Outlaw Late Model race.

Gaunt Brothers Racing raises $12,000 in auction for Humboldt Broncos hood

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Gaunt Brothers Racing announced Wednesday it raised $12,000 in an auction for the hood off DJ Kennington’s No. 96 Toyota in last weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway

Kennington’s hood featured the logo for the Humboldt Broncos.

The hood honors the 16 people who lost their lives and the 13 who were injured on April 6 when a bus carrying members of the junior-A Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League team was struck by a semi-trailer as the team was on its way to a playoff game in Nipawin, Saskatchewan, Canada.

The money will be donated to the Humboldt Broncos charity. The winning bid was placed by Kennington’s sponsor, Castrol.

Kennington, who finished 27th in Food City 500, is a native of St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada.

The hood was signed by every member of the No. 96 team.

NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 Best at Richmond in last three years

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As NASCAR nears the end of its spring short track season, it heads to a course that is often transitional with elements of unrestricted, intermediate speedways tossed in for good measure. Two of the last three races have been run on tracks less than a mile in length, and while they are all very dissimilar in handling characteristics for the drivers, they share at least one important commonality.

Cars are constantly in traffic and a mistake by a driver not in contention for the win can take out the leader – just as it did Ryan Blaney last week at Bristol Motor Speedway. The unpredictable nature of short track racing is part of what makes it a fan favorite, but it can be a challenge to those responsible for handicapping the events.

Last year, only four drivers swept the top 10 in Richmond’s two races. By comparison, the Bristol Motor Speedway bullring had three drivers who swept a track that typically requires rhythm to navigate well. When erratic results creep into the statistics, it pays to take a longer look and three-year averages are one of the most meaningful ways to eliminate peaks and valleys.

Players who have not already joined the NASCAR America Fantasy league can still do so at nascar.com/nbcsportsfantasy, and then share your team using #NASCARAmericaFantasy.

1. Joey Logano (4.83)
Last year’s Toyota Owners 400 was pivotal for Logano. His victory was deemed encumbered by NASCAR and Logano was not allowed to use it to qualify for the playoffs. He finished second in the fall Richmond event , however, and this could be the week he returns to Victory Lane.

2. Denny Hamlin (7.17)
Hamlin finished 22nd in the spring 2015 Richmond race, but he has been an incredibly good value ever since. He finished sixth in the next two races, won the fall 2016 Federated Auto Parts 400 and swept the top five last year.

3. Jimmie Johnson (7.50)
Last week was the first real sign that Johnson’s season is turning around. He came from the back of the grid after making an unapproved tire change, but once he got to the leaders, he looked like the Johnson that once dominated races. It might be time to trust him again.

4. Kyle Busch (7.60 in five starts)
Busch has not scored a top-five at Richmond in three races, but his back-to-back runner-up finishes in fall 2015 and spring 2016 give him a great average. The fact that he enters the Toyota Owners 400 with back-to-back wins and a six-race streak of top-three finishes this year certainly improves his odds.

5. Kurt Busch (7.67)
Busch ticks off both boxes that fantasy players are most concerned with. He has been consistent and strong at Richmond with six top 10s in his last seven races and a win in spring 2015. Last fall, he added another top five to his Richmond record.

5. Kevin Harvick (7.67)
Harvick has been an all or nothing driver at Richmond in recent years with five top fives compared to two results outside the top 10. His most recent of three wins came in spring 2013.

7. Brad Keselowski (8.83)
Expanding the parameters a little for Keselowski reveals he has a Richmond victory in 2014 along with three other top fives in his last eight starts. He has finished worse than 11th only once in that span and makes a great utility fantasy pick this week.

8. Kyle Larson (9.33)
In four years at Richmond, Larson has been consistently better in the fall with a second-place finish in 2016 and his victory last year. He has not yet cracked the top 10 in the spring race, but could fare better now that it is going to be run under the lights.

9. Daniel Suarez (9.50 in two starts)
Now that he has survived 500 laps at Bristol, Suarez knows that his thumb will not be a problem and is prepared to earn a third top 15 in three starts there.

10. Jamie McMurray (10.00)
The one word that always comes to mind with McMurray is consistency. At Richmond, he has not finished worse than 16th in his last nine attempts there. His bad luck from 2018 has to dissipate soon and there is really no telling when or where that will happen.

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: Matt Kenseth swept the pole last year at Richmond and the new driver of the No. 20 is no stranger to speed. Erik Jones’ first career pole came on the short track of Bristol last August, so he knows how to get around short tracks.

Segment Winners: Play the odds this week. Harvick has the most segment wins in 2018 (four), while Keselowski has earned the most segment points (100). Kyle Busch is no slouch either with 98 segment points and two wins. Whichever of these three qualify best should be the segment one pick; toss a coin for segment two.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.

Timothy Peters set for Cup debut at Talladega with Ricky Benton Racing

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It’s never too late to be a rookie.

Timothy Peters, 37, will make his Cup debut next weekend in the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Peters will race with rookie stripes in the No. 92 Ford owned by Ricky Benton Racing. It will be the second Cup race for the team after the Daytona 500 in February. David Gilliland finished 14th in the race.

Peters will be sponsored by Advance Auto Parts.
“This is just a dream come true for me,” said Peters in a press release. “I am humbled and so appreciative for the opportunity that Ricky, Advance Auto Parts , the entire Black’s Tire family, BB&T and Highland Construction have given me to make my first Cup start.”
Peters has eight starts and two wins at Talladega in the Camping World Truck Series.

Before this year, both Peters’ and Benton’s NASCAR fortunes were mostly confined to the Truck Series.

Peters has 239 starts and 10 wins in the series since 2005. He also has eight starts in the Xfinity Series. Peters has been without a full-time ride since Red Horse Racing shut down after five races in 2017.

Benton has fielded the No. 92 in 80 Truck races since 2010.

The two teamed up for the March Truck race at Martinsville Speedway. Peters, who won at the track in 2009, started 16th and finished seventh. It was the 12th top 10 for the team.

“Timothy is an incredibly talented driver and proved to be a great fit with our guys at Martinsville,” Benton said in a press release. “He and (crew chief) Mike (Hester) worked great together, communicated well and made some great adjustments as that race progressed.
“I have no doubt that it will carry over to Talladega in the Cup car.”