Bump & Run: What to do about the All-Star Race?

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NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan, Dustin Long, Jerry Bonkowski and Daniel McFadin tackle this week’s topics as NASCAR heads toward the All-Star Race:

Is the All-Star Race still necessary on the Cup schedule since the same drivers are competing against each other every race?

Nate Ryan: It’s a fair question given that Cup races have adopted an All Star-type aesthetic with stage racing this season. I think there still is a purpose for an All-Star event in NASCAR, but there need to be hard questions asked about defining its objective and making aggressive moves in accordance with that.

Dustin Long: It is necessary if the purpose is to use it as a way to test ideas that could be transferred to points races, much like double-file restarts with lead-lap cars in both rows, the idea of stage racing or the use of a softer tire. If NASCAR goes away from that notion, then it would be better to replace the All-Star race with another points race or make it an open weekend.

Jerry Bonkowski: After more than 35 years, the All-Star Race remains a very viable and vibrant tradition that fans still love to attend or watch on TV. But it may need some revitalization going forward. How to revitalize it and draw even more interest is a fine line to balance. Most importantly — if changes do occur, keep them in place for several years to come. Fans oftentimes get confused when the race format changes from year to year.

Daniel McFadin: The Cup season is really long, so having one weekend devoted to a race just for fun, money and sometimes testing new aero packages is a welcome respite in the march from February to November. The second half of the season could use one as well.

What change would you make to the All-Star Race?

Nate Ryan: Rotate the venue, have fun with the personalities and take major chances with the competition. My feelings haven’t changed much since writing this three years ago: https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nascar/2014/05/15/nascar-sprint-all-star-race-failings-improvement-suggestions/9142915/

Dustin Long: Move it. If it’s going to stay in Charlotte, take it off the weekend and run it the Thursday night before the Coca-Cola 600 instead of Cup qualifying. The challenge in changing sites is that it is an event at an Speedway Motorsports Inc. track, so moving it would create an issue for SMI in terms of loss revenue. Until that matter gets resolved, the event will stay in Charlotte. However, I do like Jeff Burton’s idea of moving it to a short track like South Boston or someplace NASCAR used to run years ago.

Jerry Bonkowski: Would it be wise to move the race around from track to track each year, giving other facilities the opportunity to see what kind of show they can put on? Would perhaps two 20-car heat races to determine a final race of 20 for the $1 million prize be better than the Open or the fan vote? Heck, let’s shake it up even more and maybe run part of the race on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course, similar to this past weekend’s IndyCar Grand Prix.

Daniel McFadin: Take it on the road. The 1.5-mile tracks – and increasingly the night races at them – are the least popular venues in the sport. Hold the All-Star Race under the lights at Martinsville, Bristol or maybe even a track the Cup Series has never been to. If NASCAR wants to get back to its roots, taking its high profile exhibition race to a famous short track could do wonders. It’s worked for the Truck Series at Eldora. If you really want to have fun, throw the rulebook out on All-Star Weekend. No inspections at all (aside from lug nuts). Let the engineers go crazy and see who wins.

What’s been a surprise to you about this season so far?

Nate Ryan: That Joe Gibbs Racing doesn’t have a victory this late for the first time since 2007. It isn’t a surprise so much that a team’s performance is cyclical as much as it is that it’s been that long since JGR went winless this deep into the season. JGR seemed less competitive throughout much of the 2014 season than this year, so there shouldn’t be any reason to panic. Its depth and the success of Furniture Row Racing ensure that the team will get things sorted.

Dustin Long: Overlooked by the discussion of Joe Gibbs Racing still winless is that Kevin Harvick remains winless. He’s had at least one win by the season’s fourth race since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Also, other than Kurt Busch’s Daytona 500 victory, Stewart-Haas Racing is winless. Yes, Stewart-Haas Racing faced challenges with the switch to Ford in the offseason but did many think that the only victory that organization would have would be due to a last-lap pass because the leader ran out of fuel?

Jerry Bonkowski: Several surprises, actually. First, Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s decision to retire at season’s end. Second, Joe Gibbs Racing’s drivers have yet to reach victory lane. Third, how quickly and readily drivers have adapted to the new stages format. Lastly, Kyle Busch continues to be fast enough to win, but he’s still winless since last July’s Brickyard 400. What has JGR done with the real Kyle Busch, and who is the imposter in the No. 18?

Daniel McFadin: When I woke up the morning of April 25 to an email saying Dale Earnhardt Jr. was going to retire. Also, Earnhardt only being able to finish in the top 10 once through 11 races. 

Ford chooses Sebastien Bourdais replacement for Le Mans (and it isn’t Tony Stewart . . . yet)

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CONCORD, N.C. —  Ford has chosen a replacement for injured Sebastien Bourdais at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is expected to announce the driver soon – but don’t hold your breath NASCAR fans.

It isn’t Tony Stewart, who has indicated his desire to run the renowned event.

While taping an upcoming episode Thursday of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, Ford Performance director Dave Pericak said the three time champion who returned from NASCAR’s premier series last year still is lobbying “every time he sees us” to race a Ford GT car.

“We love Tony, and he wants to get behind the wheel of that GT but not at LeMans” in 2017, Pericak told NBC Sports at the Ford Performance Technical Center.

However, the new co-driver will be relatively inexperienced on the famous Circuit de la Sarthe road course in France. Pericak said Ford’s high-tech simulator (which mainly is used for NASCAR but also is used for sports cars and street models) at its North Carolina facility would help prepare the replacement.

“We will be using the simulator heavily between now and then for that driver to become fully up to speed not only in the GT but at Le Mans,” Pericak said. “There’s a great example of where we’re going to get tons of hours behind the wheel before that driver gets on an airplanes and heads over the France.

“The realism is unbelieveable. It’s a fantastic tool to have with this situation. Otherwise, you pick a driver, send him to Le Mans and take your chances. We’re going to be much more prepared. We already have the simulator ready to run that track because we ran it all last year.”

Returning to France last year, Ford won the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a Chip Ganassi Racing GT driven by Bourdais, Joey Hand and Dirk Muller.

Bourdais, who suffered pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip in an Indianapolis 500 qualifying crash last Saturday, was released from an Indianapolis hospital Thursday.

“Thank God, he’s going to be OK,” Pericak said. “We’ve talked to him, he’s in good spirits, but we’re really pleased he’s going to make a full recovery.”

Pericak said an announcement of Bourdais’ replacement was likely Thursday or Friday.

NASCAR suspends Camping World Truck crew chief one race

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NASCAR has suspended Camping World Truck Series crew chief Kevin Bellicourt one Truck event and fined him $5,000 because Justin Haley‘s truck failed minimum height requirements after last weekend’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The L1 penalty also docked Haley 10 points and the team 10 owner points. He finished 17th in an encumbered finish.

NASCAR also announced Thursday that Joseph P. Light has been reinstated after successfully completing NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program. He was indefinitely suspended March 16.

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Stewart-Haas Racing, Nature’s Bakery reach tentative settlement

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Counsel for Stewart-Haas Racing reported to North Carolina Superior Court on Wednesday that it has executed settlement documents with Nature’s Bakery.

A status report was pushed back 21 days to June 23 in the event the that the parties have not filed a stipulation of dismissal by that date.

No details of the settlement documents were detailed to the court.

Stewart-Haas Racing filed a $31 million breach of contract lawsuit against Nature’s Bakery on Feb. 3. Nature’s Bakery had two years remaining on a three-year contract to sponsor Danica Patrick’s team when the company sent the team a notice of termination on Jan. 19 . Nature’s Bakery was to have paid $15,212,000 each season to sponsor the team.

Nature’s Bakery filed a counterclaim Feb. 25 stating it did not see the return it was led to believe in sponsoring Patrick’s team.

Click here to read court document

Thursday’s schedule for NASCAR Cup, Xfinity at Charlotte

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Charlotte Motor Speedway kicks off its weekend leading up to Sunday’s main event, the Coca-Cola 600, with today’s action.

The Xfinity Series will hold two practices, while the NASCAR Cup Series has one practice and qualifies in the evening.

Here is today’s schedule:

(All Times Eastern)

11:30 a.m. – 9 p.m. – Cup garage open

1:30 p.m. – 9 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

2 p.m. – 3:25 p.m. – First Cup practice (Fox Sports 1)

4 p.m. – 4:55 p.m. – First Xfinity practice (FS1)

6 p.m. – 6:55 p.m. – Final Xfinity practice (FS1)

7:15 p.m. – Cup qualifying (multi-vehicle, three rounds) (FS1, Performance Racing Network)