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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.

My Home Tracks: New Mexico’s the Land of Enchantment and home of Cardinal Speedway

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The state of New Mexico is known more for IndyCar racing, with the Unser family being the state’s favorite sons.

Al Unser won four Indianapolis 500s, brother Bobby three and Al’s son Al Jr. a two-time winner (this weekend’s 500 marks the 25th anniversary of Little Al’s second 500 triumph).

But there’s a strong grassroots racing scene in the Land of Enchantment, particularly in the far southeast corner of the state at Cardinal Speedway, a half-mile dirt track in the little town of Eunice.

NASCAR America continues its My Home Track series of 50 states in 50 shows.

Wednesday, we visit New York state.

2018 NASCAR schedule changes: EVP Steve O’Donnell breaks it down (video)

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On Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America, NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell joined us to discuss the NASCAR Cup schedule changes in 2018, including running a road race at Charlotte and having Indianapolis be the final race before the playoffs.

“I’m real excited about these changes,” said O’Donnell, who cited unprecedented cooperation between NASCAR, its teams, drivers and sponsors to reach agreement on the schedule changes.

Among the key changes: Las Vegas will kick off the 10-race playoffs in 2018 (Chicagoland Speedway, which will have hosted the last seven playoff openers, will return to its more traditional race date in early July/late June and serve as a run-up to the Coke Zero 400 in Daytona.

Several other changes include:

  • The fall playoff race at Charlotte will move up a couple weeks in the schedule and also incorporate competition on both the infield road course and part of the speedway itself.
  • After 14 years as the deciding race to qualify for the NASCAR Cup playoffs, Richmond International Raceway will now become the second race of the playoffs.
  • Indianapolis Motor Speedway will see it’s Brickyard 400 go from late July to become the final qualifying race for the playoffs in early September. While still in the rumor stage, there’s a lot of talk that IMS may change the race to something akin to its Verizon IndyCar Series Indy Grand Prix race in mid-May, where half the race is run on the infield road course and the other half on the traditional racetrack surface.

Catch up on all the changes in the above video.

Tony Stewart pulled over by state trooper, but it’s not for speeding

Photo courtesy Damein Cunningham Twitter account
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Retired NASCAR Cup driver and team co-owner Tony Stewart was stopped by an Illinois State Trooper over the weekend near DeKalb, Ill., about 90 minutes west of Chicago.

But before you think Stewart was stopped for speeding by Trooper Damein Cunningham, he wasn’t.

Rather, Cunningham pulled Stewart over for improper lane usage, although exactly what the infraction was is unclear.

After getting a verbal warning, Stewart gladly posed with Cunningham for a selfie, which the trooper promptly tweeted out.

“Just pulled over NASCAR LEGEND Tony Stewart on I-88 in DeKalb, IL, what you think I got him for? #NASCAR #ISP”

But according to the Chicago Tribune, Cunningham’s bosses apparently didn’t have a sense of humor about the incident or realize the good PR it meant for the Illinois State Police.

That, or they’re not Stewart or NASCAR fans. They ordered Cunningham to delete the tweet, which he did.

It’s unclear what Stewart, who was stopped on his 46th birthday, was doing in the Land of Lincoln.

But his luck went from bad to worse a few hours later. According to USA Today, Stewart and others were stuck in an elevator in a Madison, Wisconsin hotel for about 20 minutes before being rescued by firefighters.

We can just imagine what the elevator riders talked about while trapped.

How much do you want to bet Stewart said, “Man, do I have a story about a cop that I have to tell you.”

Cunningham then posted another tweet on Sunday after attending church services.

 

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All-Star Race will remain at Charlotte in 2018

Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
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NASCAR confirmed that the All-Star Race will be held again at Charlotte Motor Speedway despite more of a push from competitors and others to move the event.

Criticism was raised after last weekend’s 70-lap event featured only three lead changes. Kyle Busch took the lead on the restart to begin the final 10-lap stage and went on to win. It marked the fourth time in the last five years the All-Star winner led every lap in the final stage. In 12 All-Star Races at Charlotte since the track was repaved, there have been two lead changes in the final five laps.

Jim Cassidy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations, was clear in a call with reporters Tuesday that the All-Star Race is set for Charlotte.

“We’ve finished our discussions for ’18,” he said. ” We’ll begin looking at ’19 and beyond in the near future.”

The All-Star Race debuted at Charlotte in 1985, moved to Atlanta in 1986 and returned to Charlotte the following year. It has been held at Charlotte ever since.

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