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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.

Atlanta Motor Speedway to delay repave at least a year

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The cries of drivers have been heard. Atlanta Motor Speedway will not repave its track as previously scheduled. Instead, track officials will evaluate the surface following the 2018 race there.

Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns the track, had planned to have the track surface repaved beginning in late March. It would have been the first repave there since 1997.

Engineers examined the track after the March 5 race to determine if the track surface could last another year with modest repairs. Track officials also consulted with Goodyear and others.

“There’s no question that the surface is worn out, but probably the most powerful lobby this side of Washington, D.C., was the biggest influence,” Ed Clark, president of Atlanta Motor Speedway, told NBC Sports of the drivers. “They kind of put the pressure on. I understand.”

After winning there, Brad Keselowski made his pitch not to repave the track.

“Drivers hate repaves,” he said. “We want to see the surfaces last as long as they can.  But the reality is nothing lasts forever, and this surface has made it a really, really long time, 20 years, I think, this season, and they should be really proud of that.

“My hope is they can get another year or two out of it, and I understand if they can’t, and you have to kind of leave it to their expertise and so forth.”

Clark said that work will need to be done to the track before next year’s race.

“The worst part is down the frontstretch in front of the grandstands,” Clark told NBC Sports. “There’s a lot of issues there. We’re actually going to have to cut a few areas and patch … to make it last through 2018. We consulted with Goodyear on that. They don’t think, as long as it is on the straightaway, it is a big issue from a tire standpoint.”

Clark said that the track surface will be sealed in October and should have the patching done before then.

“Let them go ahead and slip and slide one more time in 2018,” Clark said.

Clark said that while anything can change, he doesn’t foresee being talked out of a repave job too many more times.

“You have to see how the weekend goes and what happens,” Clark told NBC Sports. “We had to patch some places after the Saturday events this year, small places. Hey, if we could go two more, great. All you’ve got to do is walk out there and look at it. It is absolutely worn out. But if the drivers say, hey our choice is to race on this surface as it is.

“There comes a point (when a repave is needed). We do have a few drainage issues we do need to correct, some other things when the time comes. Right now, we’re going to get through 2018 and evaluate and see if that is the time or when is it.”

Clark said that when the track is repaved, Goodyear has expressed interest in having two test sessions to determine the proper tire for that 1.5-mile track instead of the customary one because of the track’s challenging surface.

Clark warns that with the excitement of Tuesday’s news, the day is still coming when the track will have to be repaved.

“I can’t see this going two more seasons, maybe only one,” Clark said.

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NASCAR America — My Home Track: 50 States In 50 Shows — Arkansas

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On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, we continued our series of My Home Track: 50 States in 50 Shows as our trucks rolled into Arkansas!

We visited two short tracks in the state that produced President Bill Clinton and Basketball Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen.

Plus we talked to NASCAR Hall of Famer and Arkansas native Mark Martin about racing in his home state.

NASCAR America: Is there cause for concern with Jimmie Johnson’s performance thus far?

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It’s no secret that Jimmie Johnson is off to a slow start in 2017.

The defending and seven-time NASCAR Cup champion has a starting average of 21.8 and a finishing average of 18.8 in the first five races of this season.

He has just one top-10 finish (ninth at Phoenix), along with 34th at Daytona, 19th at Atlanta, 11th at Las Vegas and 21st Sunday at Fontana.

And let’s not forget he’s 17th in the NASCAR Cup standings heading to one of his strongest tracks, Martinsville Speedway, this Sunday.

On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, we discussed this: After such a slow start to the season, is there a cause for concern over Johnson’s performance?

NASCAR America: Mark Martin is definitely a Kyle Larson fan

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On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin shared his experience of racing in his home state of Arkansas, as well as the excitement he feels watching  Kyle Larson compete in the Cup series.