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NASCAR may further reduce how many Xfinity races Cup drivers can compete

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INDIANAPOLIS — NASCAR has talked with Xfinity teams about further limiting Cup drivers in Xfinity races, series managing director Wayne Auton said Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

One possibility would be for Cup drivers to be limited to five Xfinity races only regardless of their experience level, which could be a significant cut for some drivers.

Currently, drivers with more than five full-time seasons in Cup are limited to 10 Xfinity races. They also cannot compete in the four Dash 4 Cash races and the final eight races of the season.

Drivers with less than five full-time Cup seasons — Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon and Daniel Suarez for example — are allowed to compete in the Xfinity Dash 4 Cash races and all playoff events except the season finale in Miami.

The rule has had a limited impact with the results. Cup drivers have won 13 of 17 Xfinity races this season, heading into Saturday’s event at Indianapolis. Even with fewer Cup drivers in the Dash 4 Cash races, Cup competitors still won three of those four events.

“We have been in talks with teams about even limiting the number of races more or stay where we’re at,” Auton said. “Those conversations are ongoing. Stay tuned. I think some announcements will be coming out here pretty soon on what the garage area has asked us to look at.’’

With the current rules, 14 of the 17 Xfinity races have had at least three Cup drivers finish in the top five. The exceptions were Iowa (standalone race), Daytona (few Cup drivers competed) and Phoenix (a Dash 4 Cash race).

“We want to make sure that we have 40 cars on the racetrack every week and we have 40 competitive cars on the racetrack every week,’’ Auton said. “I’m very proud of the way our Xfinity drivers have held up this year. Have they won as many races as the other series drivers? No, they haven’t, but I’m going to tell you what, you can’t go from a lack of effort. They’re really driving their cars really hard this year to make sure they get that championship at Homestead.’’

Kyle Busch is against the rule and reiterated his disappointment Friday at Indianapolis when asked about how he plans to stop racing in the Xfinity Series after he accumulates 100 wins (he has 89).

“Nothing came into the thought of it,” Busch said. “Joe (Gibbs) and I, we’ve always been joking for the last two or three years they’re going to kick us out and they are. They’re trying year by year and race by race of eliminating myself from competition in the Xfinity Series.’’

Asked what NASCAR does not understand in the debate and why he should be able to race as often as he wants in the Xfinity Series, Busch said: “I don’t think that’s a battle that I’ll ever win, so I’m best off keeping my mouth shut.’’

Kevin Harvick also has issues with further reducing the number of Xfinity races for Cup drivers. He notes such a change could impact teams financially. 

“I think that’s the one thing that a lot of people forget,’’ Harvick said on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show. “They want to take this Xfinity Series and they want to make it into Xfinity drivers only. Well, guess what? If you don’t race against the Cup guys and you don’t have that experience on a weekly basis of learning what those Cup guys are doing to run fast and how this sport works, all that is going to happen is you’re just going to struggle longer when you get to Cup. You’re not going to have all the tendencies of the things that you need just racing against Xfintiy drivers that don’t have all the experience that Cup guys get.

“And oh by the way. Those Xfinity sponsorships? Most of those sponsorships are tied to a Cup guy. If they dropped these races to five races like they’re talking to next year, we’ll have to cut two races. There’s probably a million dollars tied to those two races in sponsoring the race, associates on the Cup car, personal services contracts, so there is a lot of money on the line.

“So when you look at a Ryan Preece gets to run a Joe Gibbs car (as he did at New Hampshire last week, finishing second), he got that opportunity because they want to run that car full-time and obviously they’re getting enough money from the races that Denny Hamlin runs and Erik Jones runs and Kyle Busch runs to charge the top dollar.

“When you have a guy in it — and this is from a team owner standpoint when DeLana and I used to have the teams — when you have that top-dollar guy and you can charge $200,000 a race for sponsorship, you can take a chance on the non-companion races or the races you haven’t sold of selling a guy a race for $100,000 or $125,000. Those are where the opportunities come from.

“I just think we need to be very, very careful about cutting all the Cup ties to the series out of the (Xfinity) Series because there is a lot of sponsorship that really probably won’t show up until you get two, three or four years down the road, when these sponsors say, ‘Well, if I can’t have Kyle (Busch) in the car, I’ll put the money in the Cup car. We’ll just use the Cup car and that will be it because that is what will happen because the price point is becoming increasingly closer as we go through the years from one series to another.’’

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Ryan: Now and Zen, NASCAR stars need to stay focused on the positives

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Hey, you don’t have a confirmed Cup ride for next season?

I know. Isn’t it great?

Uhh, but what about the precipitous decline of a steady seven-figure annual income?

Couldn’t be happier!

OK, but this is the end of your professional life as you’ve known it for at least a decade, right?

Well, I’m thinking of taking up croquet.

Zen, baby.

If you’re a veteran facing an uncertain future in stock-car racing, it’s become the mantra of an unsettling 2017 season.

Danica Patrick used the word to describe her state of mind in a recent story about her contract being up, and she has been preaching it well through social media postings (and on a recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast).

We heard echoes again after Matt Kenseth’s fourth-place finish Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, where the Joe Gibbs Racing driver missed a chance to capture a playoff berth while also failing to outduel the upstart (Erik Jones) who will take his job next season.

Yet Kenseth, the stoic champion whose deadpan wit sorely will be missed if his 18th season on NASCAR’s premier circuit also is his last, was in a lighthearted mood afterward, joking with reporters and poking fun at Jones in a side-by-side news conference that was amusing instead of awkward.

Kenseth seemed to be in a state of … Zen.

“I don’t really have anything to be unhappy about,” he said. “Knock on wood, because things can turn on dime. But my life couldn’t be much better. I’ve never really been in a better place. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. There’s more to life than racing.

“I think everything happens or doesn’t happen for a reason. It will all become clear.”

It dovetailed with the feelings Kenseth had expressed when asked about the future a day earlier (“I’m not worried about it even really 1 percent, to be honest”) and mirrored the sanguine sentiments of peers who are facing similarly indeterminate outlooks.

Whether it’s Patrick, Kenseth, Kasey Kahne or Kurt Busch, several familiar names with disparate backgrounds and personalities have at least two things in common: 1) the lack of a contract for 2018; and 2) a sunny disposition about what is next despite the absence of certitude.

It’s made some media center interviews this year seem as if they are missing only a comfortable couch and the soothing voice of a therapist helping drivers manage the cognitive dissonance of being unwanted by a major Cup team but encouraged by the liberation of free agency.

Aside from underscoring the importance of good mental health, the calm acceptance in the face of the great unknown represent the best (and perhaps only) option for reckoning with the possible career finality.

It’s easy to poke fun at the positive attitudes, but it also is the best outward stance for the hope of remaining gainfully employed in Cup. Kenseth, Patrick, Kahne and Busch have weathered enough as public figures to know the importance of public relations.

Also, things aren’t so bad anyway for those on the cusp of potentially needing work.

Patrick has launched a successful athletic leisure clothing line and released the first Cabernet Sauvignon from her new vineyard and has her first book scheduled for a January release.

Busch is tweeting photos from a happy marriage. Kahne constantly is doting on his 22-month-old son, Tanner. Kenseth is cycling a few hundred miles monthly to peak physical condition (and has three young daughters at home who seem the apple of his eye).

So, life is good regardless of the racing?

Yes. Either way, it’s just about going in circles while trying to keep a smile.

XXX

Though Logan Lucky missed box office expectations for its opening weekend, the Steven Soderbergh vehicle still put NASCAR in the middle of national movie reviews (most of which were overwhelmingly positive) – and without the stigma of being spoofed or worse in past presentations on celluloid.

“NASCAR was really critical to the movie,” Soderbergh, the director of Ocean’s 11, told the audience at the Charlotte premiere a few weeks ago. “We were wanting to do for the Coca-Cola 600 and NASCAR what we did in the first Ocean’s movie for the Bellagio. We wanted to make this seem like this was an event that you would attend and was fun, and I hope we accomplished that.”

Though there were a few fanciful elements (the proximity of West Virginia to Charlotte Motor Speedway, the wacky car owner subplot), Logan Lucky presented a narrow but attractive view of stock-car racing. Talladega Nights is a frequent target for its incessant lampooning, but NASCAR also wasn’t done many favors by the cartoon campiness of Days of Thunder or (the long-forgotten) Steel Chariots.

“I think we’ve learned from maybe our mistakes with other movies and how a nonfan perception of our sport could change from a movie to what we really are,” said Joey Logano, who has a cameo in Logan Lucky. “Talladega Nights is maybe the worst presentation or representative of what we are. I think we’ve learned a lot from that.

“I think Cars is one of the best things that has ever happened to our sport. It’s for kids to watch and really a lot of it makes sense. I just watched Cars 3 the other night and it’s like whoa, this really lines up with a lot of things that go on in our sport. That’s important when we select the movies we’re in; we don’t want to just be in any of them, you have to be aware of the brand of the sport when making these decisions.”

XXX

Last Saturday’s race was the best blend of the old and new at Bristol Motor Speedway, which has taken its lumps since a 2007 reconfiguration of the banking erased the bump and run and a 2012 makeover eliminated the bottom lane.

With the application of traction compound to the bottom lane that essentially lasted for 500 laps (after many predicted it would be gone within 100), the 0.533-mile oval featured the right amount of variation for frequent battles for the lead. While it didn’t have as many of the memorable clashes and contact that have defined vintage races at Bristol, it satisfied Kyle Larson, who was a vocal detractor in March when the track initially attempted to work in a lower line.

“I thought it was awesome,” Larson said Monday at a news conference to announce a new sponsorship. “I really liked how the lane changed a lot, not only throughout the race but throughout the run. It seemed like you could run the middle a couple of laps, get to the bottom, then 25 laps in the run, you could go where you wanted. It seemed like the top would be better a little bit, then you’d get back to the bottom. Then it changed. Each run was a little different. I think the racing is always good, but especially this time, it seemed really fun.”

XXX

Though his winning car at Michigan passed scrutiny at the NASCAR R&D Center, Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet needed four trips through inspection before qualifying at Bristol. After a two-race stretch of multiple run-ins with officials last month, Larson’s team recently had been out of the crosshairs, and car owner Chip Ganassi said Bristol was “a little bit of an anomaly” in its quest to push the limits of the rules without breaking them.

“It’s obviously been a challenge,” Ganassi said Monday. “I think we’ve shown NASCAR that it’s important we communicate with them and they communicate with us on a clear basis about what they want done, and we’re happy to do that.

“We’re working hard. Nobody wants anybody to break rules. We’re not known for that, OK? But any championship team or contender, they know you have to run right up to the edge of the rules. Anybody in racing knows that’s important to be competitive is to run up to the edge of the rules. Don’t go over the line but go up to the edge of the line. I’d hope they respect us for that, and I’m sure they do. And we have to respect what they do as well.”

XXX

It was hard to find flaws in Kyle Busch’s tripleheader sweep, but there were a few, and all were in the pits.

In the Xfinity and Truck series, it was about Busch going too fast, but more troubling was his crew being too slow on Saturday. At least twice, slower pit stops cost Busch the lead, and crew chief Adam Stevens said it wasn’t because of the No. 18 Toyota.

“We just missed a little something,” Stevens said. “One time we had an issue on the front, one time on the back.  I feel like we’re about half a step off there and we’re going to have to clean that up heading into the (playoffs) for sure.”

XXX

With NASCAR considering a way to police the manner in which the order of double-file restarts is determined, it’s raised discussion of the “cone rule” that is in place at many short tracks.

Under the procedure, drivers are allowed to choose the inside or outside lane on restarts, incentivizing the need to gain spots during yellow-flag pit stops (instead of decelerating to gain an even or odd position). A variation, known as “the choose rule,” actually was implemented more than a decade ago in the Summer Shootout series at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It seems a simple fix, but something also rings hollow about applying a minor-league codicil to a major-league entity.

Hong Kong group to sponsor Richard Childress Racing Xfinity car at Darlington

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Richard Childress Racing on Wednesday announced a new one-race sponsorship for the Sept. 2 Sports Clips Haircuts VFW 200 Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway.

The unique sponsorship is with KCMG, a motorsports group based in Hong Kong, China. KCMG was established in 2007 and has become a major force in development of professional racing across the Asian Pacific region.

It is also currently expanding operations to Europe.

Brandon Jones will drive the No. 33 KCMG Chevrolet in the race.

Both RCR and KCMG are looking at a potential future full-time sponsorship in NASCAR, as well as develop additional racing opportunities in the Asia Pacific region.

“The opportunity arose to partner with Richard Childress Racing, one of the premier stock car racing teams, and we felt that a partnership for a Xfinity Series race would be the next best step in exploring opportunities in NASCAR,” KCMG founder Dr. Paul Ip said in a media release.

KCMG entered the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2013 and claimed the LMP2 win in the French Endurance race in 2015.

One Cup crew chief, two others in Trucks, fined for Bristol penalties

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NASCAR on Wednesday issued three penalties from the past weekend of racing at Bristol Motor Speedway.

In the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was found to be in violation of Sections 10.9 and 10.4 of the NASCAR Rule Book: Tires and wheels (lug nuts not properly installed).

As a result, crew chief Scott Graves has been fined $10,000.

In the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, the No. 51 and No. 83 Trucks were also found to be in violation of Sections 10.9 and 10.4 (lug nuts not properly installed).

As a result, Kevin Manion, crew chief of the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota, and Richard Mason, crew chief of the No. 83 DJ Copp Motorsports Chevrolet, were each fined $2,500.

All penalties were issued for safety level violations.

There were no penalties in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. There also were no suspensions or other penalties across all three series.

JR Motorsports mourns team member Adam Wright, killed in car crash

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JR Motorsports is mourning the passing of team member Adam Wright, who died Sunday night in a one-car crash near Statesville, North Carolina.

Wright, 33, was traveling on Flower House Loop around 10:50 p.m. Sunday “when he ran off the road twice and his vehicle became airborne,” according to Statesville.com, per North Carolina State Patrol Trooper J. S. Swagger.

Swagger added that Wright, who worked as a mechanic on Michael Annett’s JRM Xfinity Series team, was not wearing a seatbelt and was partially ejected from the wrecked vehicle.

Wright was pronounced dead at the scene. Troopers are still investigating the crash.

Wright is being remembered on social media by many in the NASCAR community: