Long: 2018 schedule provides big test for one track; other musings on changes

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For all the talk about Indianapolis’ move to the last race before the playoffs or Charlotte’s road course event, the track that will face the most scrutiny from Tuesday’s 2018 schedule announcement is Richmond International Raceway.

Although the racing has been better when the track hosted day races, Richmond will go back to two night races next year and its September event moves into the playoffs after serving as the cutoff race since 2004. 

The change comes at a critical time for Richmond, a favorite among drivers but a track that has seen waning fan interest — thus the flip-flopping from night to day back to night events to please a fanbase that wants good racing but doesn’t want a sunburn. The spring crowd, no doubt affected by unseasonably warm temperatures in the 80s, was disappointing.

What makes the schedule change more critical for the track is what could be next. International Speedway Corp., which owns the facility, has slated Richmond as next for upgrades after Phoenix Raceway’s $178 million makeover is completed late next year.

While crowds have thinned at all tracks in the last decade, Richmond has seen its seating capacity cut from 110,000 in 2009 to its current capacity of 59,000, according to ISC annual reports. The 46.4 percent decline is the largest percentage capacity reduction among ISC’s 12 tracks that host Cup events.

The question becomes if the crowd continues to thin — even though Richmond is a day’s drive for nearly half of the U.S. population — will it be worthwhile for ISC to make the investments to the track? Or would it be better for ISC to invest in another of its facilities?

Something that could help Richmond is what will take place this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The track’s upper groove is being treated by the same PJ1 TrackBite compound used at Bristol to improve the racing.

What’s unique is that the compound is applied to an asphalt track instead of a concrete track such as Bristol. If it entices drivers to use the high lane for part of the race, that will be significant. The challenge is that as the race moves into the evening and cooler temperatures, the bottom groove will be the fastest way around.

Richmond seemed to have a good solution when it sealed the track from 1988-2002 but hasn’t done since. The time seems right to do something to the track with two Cup night races. 

Drivers say that the best racing is during the day when conditions are the hottest. That’s not the most enjoyable conditions for fans. So fans who wanted night racing back at Richmond will get it for both events.

Fans should be careful what they wish for because cool, evening temperatures are not conducive to the best type of racing.

DAYTONA CHANGES

Another alteration to the schedule is that Daytona 500 qualifying and the Clash will be held on the same day, Feb. 11, a week before the 500.

It’s a nice move to tighten the schedule, but why can’t more be done?

Does Daytona need to be held over two weekends?

“I would say certainly we talked about a lot of things,’’ said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR vice president of racing operations when asked about shortening Daytona Speedweeks. “But when you kick off the season with your biggest event of the year, and you have a number of races to support that kickoff of the season, Daytona has a portfolio of races that commands a number of weeks. I think our fans look forward to spending a lot of time in Daytona in the month of February.

“Certainly there’s consideration around the race teams, the amount of time they spend. But when you talk about the biggest event of your season, it certainly warrants a couple of weeks based on what we have from a content standpoint.”

I’m not convinced. I think you could compress it into one week and make the week more entertaining.

Here’s one possible way how:

Tuesday: Cup haulers park in garage.

Wednesday: Cup teams practice and qualify. Truck teams park in garage.

Thursday: Cup teams compete in the Duels. Xfinity teams park in garage. Truck teams practice.

Friday: Cup teams practice. Xfinity teams practice. Truck teams qualify and race. Cup teams in the Clash practice.

Saturday: Cup final practice for the Daytona 500. Xfinity teams race. The Clash is held an hour after the Xfinity race ends.

Sunday: Daytona 500.

A doubleheader with the Xfinity Series and the Clash the day before the Daytona 500 creates more reasons for fans to be there for the weekend.

Maybe there’s a better way, but the point is cut a weekend out of Speedweeks and that can give teams a break at some other point in the season (or just start the season a few days later).

As the sport looks to be more efficient with its race weekends — Pocono, Watkins Glen and Martinsville each will have qualifying a few hours before the race in the second half of the season — cutting a weekend out of Daytona only makes sense.

Also, watch for more two-day Cup weekends if the experiment works this year.

INDY THE RIGHT RACE BEFORE THE PLAYOFFS?

Indianapolis taking the spot as the final race before the playoffs raises some questions.

When Richmond was there, at least many more teams had a chance to win. At Indianapolis, those that can win are fewer. Typically, the best teams excel at Indy because they have the best aero and engine packages. That’s not something a smaller team can overcome as much as it can on a short track.

The notion of an upstart winning their way into the playoffs is less likely at Indianapolis. Those who need stage points in a last-gasp effort to make the playoffs will have to gamble. Truthfully, that could make Indy more dramatic in some ways. Paul Menard won the 2011 race on a fuel gamble, but such payoffs are not likely to happen often and then what you are left with?

Something to consider is that the Xfinity cars will race there in July with restrictor plates and other modifications. If those changes enhance the racing, then it would make sense for the Cup cars to go with something similar. If NASCAR can get its cars to make passes like the IndyCars (there were 54 lead changes in last year’s Indianapolis 500), then you’d have something worth talking about.

If that doesn’t work, maybe you’re left with the tradeoff that Richmond gives the playoffs two short tracks.

A NOVEL IDEA BUT WILL IT WORK?

Charlotte’s roval for the playoffs will smack of desperation to some, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Still, one has to applaud the sport and the track looking for a different way to entertain fans. Sometimes, the greatest rewards come after the greatest risks.

While drivers will race on the infield road course, they still nearly will race all the way around the 1.5-mile track. If the action on the road course section mimics what fans see at Sonoma or Watkins Glen, then this will be a good move. If not, what then?

Charlotte’s format will present challenges for crew chiefs in setting up the car, but the key is going to be action. Few people go to races to watch the crew chiefs. It’s about the drivers. And it will be about contact on the road course.

SAME OLD, SAME OLD

Even with all the changes to the front half of the playoff schedule, three of the final five races are on 1.5-mile speedways.

Cassidy said NASCAR isn’t as concerned about that.

“I wouldn’t get too hung up on the number of intermediate tracks because I think what you’ve seen, if you want to focus on the back end of the playoffs, focus on the racing that we’ve seen at intermediate tracks, each of the intermediate tracks as kind of taking shape from having its own distinct personality from a racing standpoint,’’ he said.

“I think you saw that at Texas this year with the changes they made, again, a vision to change things up on that side, and to create a different racing dynamic at a mile‑and‑a‑half track.

“What you saw at Kansas a couple weeks ago kind of speaks for itself.

  “And then I don’t think you could argue that Homestead has provided some of the most compelling racing you could ever imagine to bring home a championship.’’

Miami is the best 1.5-mile track and has produced some good racing in the season finale. Nothing wrong with it where it is. Kansas has had its ups and downs but did have 21 lead changes earlier this month in what was viewed as an entertaining race. With its new track surface, we’ll see where Texas goes from its race in April.

If all three can provide entertaining racing and allow drivers to move through the field instead of being stuck in a line, then they should stay in their spots. But if they can’t do so, then NASCAR should not be afraid of making further changes to the playoff schedule.

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Tony Gibson looks forward to ‘new chapter in my life’ at Stewart-Haas Racing

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One day after Stewart-Haas Racing announced its crew chief lineup for 2018, Tony Gibson took to Twitter on Saturday to explain why he’s stepped aside as Kurt Busch’s crew chief and how much he’s looking forward to his new role at Stewart-Haas Racing.

“As many of my racing family know, I have been trying to come off the road for several years,” Gibson tweeted. “Traveling 4 days a week for 31 years can take a toll on you.

“For 2018, Stewart-Haas Racing gave me the opportunity to come off the road and still have a very hands-on job within the organization. Working closely with all 4 crew chiefs and NASCAR.

“My career as a crew chief has given me so many memories I will cherish forever, but now I start a new chapter in my life enjoying some valuable time with my wife, new grandson Luke and all my family. I look forward to watching all the success Stewart-Haas Racing will have in 2018!!”

Since joining SHR in 2009, the 53-year-old Gibson has served as crew chief for Ryan Newman, Patrick and Busch.

Gibson won six races as a crew chief, all at SHR — three by Newman and three by Busch, including last February’s Daytona 500, one of the big highlights of Gibson’s career as he grew up in the shadows of Daytona International Speedway.

Earlier in his career, Gibson was car chief when Alan Kulwicki won the 1992 NASCAR Cup championship. He served as car chief when Bill Elliott won the 1994 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Gibson then won 29 races and two Cup championships as car chief for Jeff Gordon from 1996 through 2001 at Hendrick Motorsports before moving to Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Billy Scott, who previously served as Danica Patrick’s crew chief the last two seasons, will become Busch’s crew chief for 2018.

NASCAR Trucks champ Christopher Bell celebrates 23rd birthday with 10th Midget win in 13 starts

Photo courtesy Christopher Bell official Twitter page
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A month after capturing the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship, Christopher Bell celebrated his 23rd birthday Saturday night by winning the third annual “Junior Knepper 55” USAC Midget Special in Du Quoin, Illinois.

Bell passed fellow Toyota driver Chad Boat with four laps remaining to win the event on the indoor, one-sixth-mile dirt oval.

It was the final race of the year for Bell – and what a year it has been.

It started with his first triumph in January’s Chili Bowl in Tulsa and continued with the Truck championship on Nov. 16. Then, less than a week later, there was a win in the Turkey Night Grand Prix on Thanksgiving night at California’s Ventura Raceway, which along with the Chili Bowl are the two biggest races in midget car racing.

And after starting his overall racing season with a win in Tulsa, Bell bookended checkered flags at the front and back end of the year with his win in Du Quoin.

The 2013 USAC National Midget champ qualified third for Saturday’s race. He moved into second when Boat took the lead from pole sitter Trey Marcham on Lap 18.

A final caution came out on Lap 50. On the ensuing restart, Bell took the lead on Lap 52 and would hold off fellow NASCAR driver Chase Briscoe by .295 of a second for the win, followed by Shane Golobic, Boat and Justin Grant in fifth.

It was Bell’s 10th win in 13 Midget starts this season, a 77 percent winning percentage and the most wins he’s ever earned in a season (his previous best was seven wins in the 2013 and 2014 seasons).

“To be able to win the last race of the year like that is pretty cool,” the Norman, Oklahoma native said in a media release. “Going to NASCAR has made me a better racecar driver just because it’s taught me things I didn’t learn here on the dirt.

“That’s something I’ve been able to find that when you run these really long races, you learn that you don’t have to lead lap five. You don’t have to lead lap 10. You only have to lead the last lap. That’s something I’ve really tried to apply in midget racing and it seems to have worked.”

Also, Camping World Truck star Matt Crafton made his first career Midget start, advancing to the B Main where he finished 13th, not high enough to advance to the night’s big feature.

There will be little rest for Bell and others: he will attempt to defend his Chili Bowl championship in just over three weeks – January 9-13 at the Tulsa Expo Center.

And just over a month after that, Bell will embark upon his first full season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Your guide to 2018 Cup Series paint schemes

Stewart-Haas Racing
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The 2018 NASCAR Cup season is still two months away from its start with the 60th Daytona 500.

But it’s not too early to start brushing yourself up on the various Cup Series paint schemes that will be on track.

Some teams haven’t made many changes to their cars (Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing), while others have completely revamped their looks (Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing).

Here’s your look at all the released paint schemes so far for next season.

This post will be updated.

Jamie McMurray

Brad Keselowski

Source: Lionel Racing

Austin Dillon

 

Lionel Racing
Lionel Racing

 

Kevin Harvick

Lionel Racing
Lionel Racing

Trevor Bayne

Roush Fenway Racing
Lionel Racing

Chase Elliott

Lionel Racing

Aric Almirola

Stewart-Haas Racing

Denny Hamlin

Lionel Racing

Ryan Blaney

Team Penske

Ty Dillon

Lionel Racing

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Lionel Racing

Kyle Busch

Lionel Racing

Daniel Suarez

Lionel Racing

Erik Jones

Lionel Racing

Paul Menard

Lionel Racing

Joey Logano

Team Penske
Lionel Racing
Lionel Racing

William Byron

Hendrick Motorsports
Lionel Racing

Ryan Newman

Lionel Racing
Lionel Racing
Richard Childress Racing

Kyle Larson

 

Chip Ganassi Racing

Darrell Wallace Jr.

(Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

Jimmie Johnson

Martin Truex Jr.

Getty Images
Lionel Racing

Alex Bowman

Nationwide

John Hunter Nemechek’s Christmas came early with Chip Ganassi Racing ride

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Before this week, John Hunter Nemechek‘s best Christmas gift came about seven years ago.

He received an Allison Legacy car, a 3/4-scale stock car with about 110 HP. He raced it throughout the Southeast, competing at Hickory Motor Speedway and Bowman Gray Stadium and other tracks.

“That’s really the deciding factor of what I wanted to race,” Nemechek told NBC Sports on Thursday. “I wanted to get back in stock cars from motorcross. That was really the first stock car I had ever driven. So it was pretty neat to get that for Christmas.”

Nemechek, the son of former Cup driver Joe Nemechek, drove to the series championship in 2012 when he was 15. A year later, he competed in his first two Camping World Truck Series races.

“Without that Allison Legacy car, I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now,” said Nemechek.

Nemechek is a few days removed from being named one of the drivers of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series next season. The move comes after he spent the last two seasons competing full-time for his family-owned NEMCO Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series, with two part-time seasons before that.

The 20-year-old driver will join Kyle Larson in sharing the ride, which boasts the same number that Nemechek’s father raced when he earned his first Cup win in 1999. Then he drove for Felix Sabates, who now a co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing.

“It’s definitely up there,” Nemcheck said of where his new ride ranks among the Christmas gifts he’s received. “I’d have to say that it’s definitely up at the top of that list.”

The news of Nemechek’s jump up NASCAR’s ladder came six months after he stood in victory lane at Gateway Motorsports Park in tears on Father’s Day.

NEMCO Motorsports struggled through multiple seasons to attract sponsorship to its No. 8 Chevrolet. By the time Gateway rolled around in June this season, there were doubts the team would be able to make it to the following race at Iowa Speedway.

Having secured a playoff spot at Gateway, Nemechek wound up winning that race too.

Nemechek’s sponsor, Fire Alarm Services, stepped to sponsor him in 12 of the season’s remaining 14 races. He narrowly advanced to the second round of the playoffs before being eliminated.

“Before Gateway it kind of was like a make-or-break season for us in the Truck Series deal,” Nemehcek said. “Not knowing how many races we were going to get to in the full year. That definitely stunk for us. Being able to make it to all those races showed what we can do. I think the (Ganassi) opportunity arose some from that and what we’ve been able to do and show in years passed.”

For two weeks before the announcement, Nemechek kept his news quiet. The rest of the NASCAR world learned he had new plans on Dec. 5, when he posted a black-and-white video on Twitter.

Three days later, he posted a picture of a car underneath a black sheet, saying the news was coming soon.

Even then, some didn’t think he was going to be racing in Xfinity or even Cup.

“There was people saying that I was still going Truck racing even though we posted that picture,” Nemechek said. “I thought that was pretty funny. ”

During his time in the Truck Series, Nemechek managed to earn five wins. With NEMCO Motorsports financial struggles, Nemechek said he never believed his NASCAR career would end in the Truck Series, though “you always have thoughts in the back of your head.”

But winning does solve problems.

“We stayed focused on one goal and that was to run as best as we could and make sure we finish races and win races and the rest will take care of itself,” Nemechek said. “We had some great partners along the way. There’s been a lot of people that have helped me get to this point, from my first ever sponsor when I ran quarter midgets all the way to now with Fire Alarm Services. We didn’t have any speculation whether or not it was going to be an Xfinity ride or whatever it may be. The goal was to keep progressing and now we’re here.”

On Thursday, two days after the news broke (with another black-and-white video), Nemechek celebrated his first Christmas with his new team at Ganassi’s holiday lunch.

Every person Ganassi employees, from NASCAR to IndyCar, was there.

“I can’t even think of the number off the top of my head,” Nemechek said.

It’s a far cry from the team Nemechek has called home for most of his race career. Outside him and his father, NEMCO Motorsports has five full-time employees.

“It’s definitely going to be different getting to know everybody’s name,” Nemechek said. “I’m sure I won’t be able to remember every single name that works here in this building.”

Nemechek’s role will also slightly change with his new employment. His only job will be in the cockpit of the No. 42.

“I definitely loved driving for dad,” Nemechek said. “I loved every second of it. He taught me a lot. He’s given me every opportunity I’ve ever gotten until now. It’s definitely going to be a different transition into not working on the vehicle every day to being focused on one thing and that’s to be a driver. I definitely think there’s going to be some different changes there as far as what I’m focusing on and hopefully that’s going to make me a better driver in the long-run.”

While all the races Nemechek will run next year have not been finalized, he does know when he’ll get to fully enjoy his early Christmas gift.

He’ll hit the track as a Chip Ganassi Racing driver for the first time on Feb. 26 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.